How to Respond to The Dreaded Question: What Kind of Job Are You Looking For?

If you’re looking for a new job (or thinking about looking for one), chances are you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Perhaps you have some ideas. Perhaps. Maybe it’s based on past experience, maybe it’s focused on where you think you can actually get a job. But it’s pretty rare that you know just what you’re looking for.

Can’t we all just come clean about that? It would make The Question a little less scary.

You know, the one that comes right after you say you're looking to switch jobs. The Question:

Well, what are you looking for?


And you get it again. And again. And again. You can't blame 'em. They want to help, and you telling them what you want helps them, help you. Still.

Sometimes, you make it up: “I’m looking for a job in dental astrophysics.” Other times, you shamefully shrug and say, “I'm not really sure... anything.” And crawl back into your hole.

You. Are. Not Alone. 

Take solace in that.

We have all been there. Even that hiring manager or well-established networking connection who seems to have it all put together (keyword: seems). Everyone has gotten that stuck/anxious/crampy feeling from job searching without a total sense of direction. I am reminded of that icky feeling every time I go into H&M without a specific item in mind. It's completely overwhelming and utterly pointless. So, how can you help the salesperson (re: networking connection) help you find that perfect dress (re: job)?

Don’t you just want to say, “I’m looking for a job that pays me what I’m worth, has incredible benefits, affords me fabulously flexible hours, where I have awesome colleagues, oh, and the company has a really purposeful mission?”

Authentic responses, yes, but maybe not the answers to give if you want to land a job or impress a networking date.

Have no fear! Here are three strategies for responding to this uncomfortable inquiry that may even land you closer to understanding what you do really want. Each strategy is organized around a three-step framework: think, speak, reflect:

Strategy 1: Start with your #skillz.

Chances are you are looking for a new position to foster some of the things you already enjoy and are probably pretty, pretty good at.

Think back on your past experience: jobs, volunteering, and any other extracurriculars. What skills did you develop? What expertise or craft did you begin honing?

Speak about those skills. Instead of humming and hawing about how you’re not totally sure what it is you want to do, but you’ve been thinking of such and such industry, how about something like this:

Q: What are you looking for in a job?

A: “In my current job, I’ve actually had a chance to start honing my project management expertise. I’ve really enjoyed both planning and executing on large projects and supporting my team in achieving our goals. This is an area I’m interested in exploring more.”

Reflect on these skills. This isn’t just an exercise to help you BS your way through a conversation. Reflect on what you’ve been learning and where you’ve been getting your juice. What have you done in the past year where you’ve found “your flow?” What aspects of your job (or life!) give you energy. Follow that yellow brick road.

Strategy 2: Look to your values and purpose.

This is something I do with all of my clients. Whether you’re a leader in your organization, searching for a new career, or heading out to run your own business, pause and think about what’s most important to you.

Think about what values in your life you must honor? For example, if you value creating, and that is something that drives and fulfills you, a job where you are given specific, rote assignments probably won’t be the best for you. A position that has space for creativity and ownership, however, might be just what you need.

Speak about it! Let’s try that out…

Q: What are you looking for in a job?

A: I’m looking for a job where I have autonomy and can take a project or a vision and run with it. I’m at my best when I am crafting a project from scratch. Can you think of any organizations that might be interested in someone who values initiative and entrepreneurship?

Reflect on this for a little bit. What is so important to you that not having it will drive you crazy? When have you been most satisfied? Take the time to list out your top 5-7 values, in priority order, and think about a time when you have been able to live them out. Need help? Call a coach, as this is one of the first things we do!

Strategy 3: Brown nose.

I say this only half in jest. Before you meet with someone to chat about their career path or organization, do your research and then share that back with them.

Think about what in their company or industry excites you. It doesn’t have to be everything their organization does; what’s the small thing you get jazzed about?

Speak about this with them. Get curious and find out more. You may learn you’re way more interested than you originally thought; or perhaps, not interested at all. Either way, you’ll gain more knowledge about a specific area and impress them with the knowledge you have about their area of interest. Let’s see what that might look like:

Q: What are you looking for in a job?

A: Great question; I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve been meeting with a lot of people in higher ed, trying to get a deeper understanding of what a career path might look like. I noticed that your division of the university is focused on international advancement, and that you take a pretty unique approach to it with offices based in Dubai and Spain. Can you tell me a bit more about how the university chose those locations?

Reflect on the meeting and write down what you learned. Where will this lead you next? Tip: you can also use this to personalize your thank you note.

So there you have it my lovely job seekers. Don’t let not knowing how to answer The Question stop you. It’s time to get moving, and you need to put yourself out there.

Also, remember that the answer to The Question isn’t permanent and it can evolve over time, as you network, as you job search, and as you live your life.